And for the first three games of the 2017 campaign, things were just rosy for Walker and the Redwings.
“Not a lot of coaches are successful right away,” Walker said. “And I started off 3-0.”
But then the bottom fell out for both Walker and his team. The Redwings faced a winless Lincoln team in the fourth game of the season and suffered a brutal shutout loss.
A week later, superstar do-everything running back Nyjon Freeman, who had an astounding 287 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Verona to start the season, suffered a devastatingly brutal knee injury, one of the most gruesome injuries ever recorded. Freeman suffered a torn ACL, a torn PCL and torn patella tendon in a loss to Ramsey. The injury required massive reconstructive surgery and began a long and grueling rehabilitation process for the young man.
“That pretty much changed the whole season,” Walker said of Freeman’s injury. “He’s one of the most talented kids I ever worked with. Losing him changed things tremendously. He carried us the first three games. He made plays on his own. Without him, we were never the same.”
The Redwings went on to lose their final seven games of the 2017 season, ending Walker’s debut season with a disappointing 3-7 record.
Hoboken with a 3-7 record? That was so totally unheard of. Considering that Walker won 49 of his last 50 games in high school, the idea that the team he coached lost seven straight games was unfathomable.
“It was something that none of us was used to,” Walker said. “The players, the coaches, none of us. It was a big learning experience for me, especially as a new coach. I learned a lot from it. I think winning early in the season hid the lack of talent we had and definitely hid the mistakes. People asked, ‘Hoboken has always had a successful program, so what happened?’ I think we were close in a lot of games. We were right there, but we just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Walker hit the offseason as a man on a mission. He also knew there were brighter days ahead.
“The good thing was that we had a lot of those players coming back,” Walker said. “Because of that, I’m expecting a totally different season this year.”
However, Walker will not have Freeman back. The brilliant Freeman has not been cleared to play football just yet, even though his rehabilitation has been going well. Because of that, Walker has decided to keep Freeman on the sidelines for the entire season and get him as healthy as possible for the 2019 campaign.
“Losing someone like that affects everybody,” Walker said. “But because we have other talented people, it made the decision to keep Nyjon out much easier. We didn’t want to rush him back and risk him getting hurt again. We’ll have him back on board next year.”
The Redwings will count on a talented junior Damon Murray to lead the way. The 6-1, 175-pound Murray is a polished signal caller who will get the chance to make plays in Walker’s spread offense.
“He’s handled the role pretty well,” Walker said. “He’s been a vocal leader for us. He makes all the plays and makes accurate throws. He’s going to be in this role for two years and that’s good for us. He’s a player.”
The main running back is impressive sophomore Kyrin Rhone (6-0, 215). Remember that name, because Rhone can run.
“He’s going to be a really good running back for us,” Walker said. “He’s going to handle that position for three years.”
Freshman Avante Vargas (6-0, 190) is a talented compliment to Rhone and will get his share of carries.
“He’s another kid we’re counting on,” Walker said. “He’s a special player.”
The fullbacks are junior Deshawn Pickett (5-9, 205) and a sophomore with a very familiar name in Anthony Henriquez, Jr. (5-8, 210).
The younger Henriquez is the son of former Redwing great linebacker Anthony, Sr., who went on to have a fine career at Kent State. Anthony’s two older sisters, Jaeda and Alicea, are now playing soccer and softball at Goldey Beacom College in Delaware.
The Redwings have a lot of speed and talent at the wide receiver position. Senior Amir Goodwin (6-1, 190), last year’s starter at quarterback, has been moved to receiver which is a better position for his talents.
“You don’t see too many kids as talented as he is,” Walker said of Goodwin. He’s electrifying and explosive.”
Senior Mike Effinger (5-8, 165), a three-sport standout, returns at wide receiver. Effinger, who plays basketball and baseball as well at Hoboken, is a brother to Goodwin. Seniors Tyshawn McClain (6-3, 220) and Ray Negron (6-0, 185) are also very talented pass catchers.
“It helps a lot to have so much experience there,” Walker said of his receivers. “They’re older, stronger and smarter.”
The tackles are senior Luis Oquendo (6-0, 220) and junior Ali Mendoza (6-0, 240). The guards are senior Elijah Chia (6-0, 270), who has started the last two seasons, first at St. Anthony and now at Hoboken, and promising sophomore Ezire King (6-0, 260). The center is senior Angel Quinones, Jr. (6-0, 260).
Most of the same personnel turn around to play defense in the Redwings’ 3-4 alignment. Quinones, Jr. is the nose tackle, with Chia and McClain at defensive end. McClain is a defensive beast.
The outside linebackers are Pickett and Negron, with the inside linebackers Henriquez (who wears his father’s jersey in practice as a motivation) and Rhone.
Murray and Goodwin are the corners. Goodwin played there last year. Effinger, who also returns at the position, is a safety, along with junior Jihad McCall (6-1, 175).
If there is one blessing, the Redwings didn’t open early like the rest of the state. They will face Lincoln in their opener Friday, Sept. 7 at JFK Stadium with the Friday Night Lights setting in the Mile Square City.
Walker is making one promise in his second season.
“Without a doubt, we will be a better team this year,” Walker said. “I know that already.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.